please talk to my agent
July 14, 2003 10:33 AM   Subscribe

The Ivy League pop stars! Gossipy article reveals how universities throughout the USA are frantically fighting each other in order to attract celebrity professors. Niall Ferguson, Deirdre (born Donald) McCloskey and Saul Bellow ("teaching load: one course a year") are some examples. Considering these people are already engaged in their own love affair with the public eye (book tours, book deals, media events etc), are they the best choice from the academic point of view? Do traditional universities really have to resort to namedropping? And just between us, anybody out there ever had or currently has classes with bigwigs that turned out to be really fascinating or really disappointing? first link via those elitists from aldaily
posted by 111 (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The point of the bigwigs in not to teach students. That's not why they're there, so if they're bad at it, it's no big deal. Their job is to produce high-quality research. they are superstars not for being famous(as media superstars are) but for being very intelligent, very productive researchers. I can only speak to Deirdre McCloskey, as she is the only one you mentioned who is in my field, but she is entirely worthy of her acclaim. It's competition among the top universities to be the most productive, not to appear the best in the media's eyes, though thats how people outside academia seem to see it.
posted by dcodea at 10:47 AM on July 14, 2003

My sister was at Cornell while Sagan was still alive. I guess he has this house on the gorge, and opposite that on the gorge, a fraternity had a house. In a gesture of goodwill, the fraternity invited Sagan and his wife Anne Druyan to the fall semester barbeque, which was apparently nothing like the raging keggers I always went to in the fall at my university. In response to the invitation, Sagan sent back a form letter saying that his appearance fee is $15000. Nice. Can't just say no thanks?
I guess one had to apply and interview and write papers and so forth to get into his class, and then there was a whole set of other instruments and supplies that you had to buy specifically for his class that my sister said was a little outrageous, even for Ivy League. He was not well liked on campus, and many that got into his course said he didn't even teach half of it.
posted by oflinkey at 11:05 AM on July 14, 2003

I met someone who had a class with Camile Paglia. On the first day of class, this student said "Good Morning" as Ms. Paglia walked in, and was ignored. The second day, she said, "Good morning, Ms. Paglia" as she walked by, and was again ignored. The third day, she again said "Good morning." Ms. Paglia stopped, turned to her, and said "Please don't say good morning to me as I enter the class. It distracts me."

The fourth day, the student again said "Good morning." Ms. Paglia returned the greeting, and this was their daily ritual for the rest of the semester.
posted by rainbaby at 11:18 AM on July 14, 2003

Deirdre McCloskey had her sex change operation while I was at the University of Iowa. As expected, this made headlines for a while, but eventually people lost interest.

Though I studied neither history nor economics at Iowa, I recall talking to a few people who had classes with her - both as Donald and as Deirdre. Apparently she was an excellent lecturer before the operation, and was just as good afterwards (though the media attention may have been a distraction at first).

So there you go. Hearsay at its best.

But would Ivy League institutions be interested in Dr. McClosky were she not born a male? I've no idea. I'll take dcodea's word for it and assume that she's being courted for her ability rather than her unique status amongst academics.
posted by aladfar at 11:20 AM on July 14, 2003

I attended a conference where Benoit Mandelbrot (father of fractals) gave a talk. I believe he teaches math at one of the Ivy Leagues. Anyway, I was all psyched about hearing from this fascinating mathematician, but was instead met with an astoundingly boring lecture. Actual "Zzzz"s were floating above the heads of the audience. Horrific. I can't imagine going to class with him every day.
posted by Marquis at 11:22 AM on July 14, 2003

Several of my friends studied poetry with Joseph Brodsky at a college neighboring mine. He was, apparently, an amazing teacher and that class changed both of their lives. One is trying to get a Ph.D. in literature the other - although I guess he's now a lay brother in a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos - writes occasional and very amusing epic poetry.

Caz Philips called the writing of another friend of mine total shit, and that friend has since published two books.

From everything I've read, Feynman was a great teacher. Although I might be wrong.

I think it depends on the person - some academic superstars are worth it for the quality of their teaching, some for the prestige they draw to the college (ennabling the college to attract better students and professors and produce more important work) and some aren't worth it.
posted by fluffy1984 at 11:30 AM on July 14, 2003

rainbaby, that's a priceless, sobering anecdote for me because I really really love Camille Paglia, and she makes it a point throughout her articles (collected in Sex, Art and American Culture, Vamps & Tramps etc) to state how hard it is for her to give early morning classes to 1st semester students but she still toils on heroically for the sake of education blahblahblah. I mean, she's full of energy, justly famous and so on, but she is human like everybody else and prone to occasional interpersonal shortcomings as well. I mean: nobody is great, charismatic and inspiring all the time. The Boston Globe article also fails to mention that, besides teachers who gather a sort of cult following (Feynman and Leo Strauss, for instance), there are great authors who simply make irregular or outright poor teachers, and this is something to carefully take into account before shelling out thousands of dollars to have so and so as faculty.

Although I cannot name names (it wouldn't ring a bell for most people here anyway), I currently attend the philosophy classes of a man I consider a true genius in the field. His classes are sublime but impressionistic, in the sense that he often veers off into unexpected issues and ends up not following the predetermined topics. What's most startling, though, is that he's totally different as a person: although he follows an Aristotelian-Tomist outline in his thinking, he's sometimes bitter, often pessimistic and cranky.

Umberto Eco once found himself in the same building where his idol Jorge Luis Borges happened to be, and he deliberately chose not to be introduced to Borges because he feared his image of the great author could be shattered. That's a lesson to keep in mind.
posted by 111 at 12:03 PM on July 14, 2003

posted by 111 at 12:04 PM on July 14, 2003

Their job is to produce high-quality research.

Sometimes. Other times their job is more to be a public face of the university. Someone that can talk to potential donors, someone whose name looks really good in catalogs and helps recruit good students, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:14 PM on July 14, 2003

Yes. In journalism school, the only place I've encountered celebrity (as in, outside the field) profs, they were, obviously, not producing research.
posted by transona5 at 12:18 PM on July 14, 2003

ROU: I don't know of a single professor at my own University whose job descriptions includes speaking with or impressing donors. There are people whose full-time job that is. Clearly, a superstar is impressive, but they're impressive for their research, not for their public face. As for recruiting students, top places could care less about their undergrads, they're only cash cows. Recruiting top grad students is again about the research.
posted by dcodea at 12:31 PM on July 14, 2003

In my experience, research ability and public speaking/teaching ability are pretty much orthogonal directions in personality space. I attended a lecture by Daniel Tsui (Physics Nobel, 1997) last year, and it was quite possibly the most boring lecture I've ever attended — incredibly rambling and incoherent. I've also heard Eric Cornell (Physics Nobel, 2001) speak, and his lecture was the first time I really understood what was going on with Bose-Einstein condensation. And both Ed Witten and Alan Guth (no Nobel — check back once string theory and inflation, respectively, are proven or disproven) were somewhere in between.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:45 PM on July 14, 2003

orthogonal directions in personality space

I salute you
posted by mookieproof at 1:00 PM on July 14, 2003

fluffy: although i'm not sure that he qualifies as a celebrity, i think caz told everyone that their work was shit. many of those people have since published.

as for celebrity profs, some outlive their expiry date. i'm told of one history professor, about 15 years after the introduction of women to the student body of a particular school who was continually surprised at the high number of girls "from the women's college down the street" in his classes.
posted by elsar at 1:28 PM on July 14, 2003

also, that is the second reference to "orthogonal directions" that i've read today. good show.
posted by elsar at 1:29 PM on July 14, 2003

ROU: I don't know of a single professor at my own University whose job descriptions includes speaking with or impressing donors

Well, of course not. Schools aren't stupid enough to introduce you to someone and say, "Hi, this is the person we hired to impress you so you'd donate to us." They're going to say "Hi, I'd like you to meet Joe Blow, who has a Nobel in *foo*" or "This is Jane Doe, one of the top scholars in *impressive-sounding field*" They'll say that even if they hired that person (or agreed to their salary demand, etc) in large part to be introduced at functions, and to appear in the catalog, and to help the university sell itself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:06 PM on July 14, 2003

So how much of a drain on a school's resources would faculty positions like this be in comparison to say its football team?

Thought so.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:20 PM on July 14, 2003

For whatever reason, Space Coyote, schools seem to feel that football programs pay for themselves (alumni giving, etc.) No idea if it's true. I would have been happy to see the one at my school tied up in little origami wrappings and mailed to the North Pole, but I'm not sure whether it was ultimately a cost center or a revenue center.

I enjoyed most of the lecture series' I went to that featured celebrity professors (Martha Nussbaum, etc.) Although Haruki Murakami was a dissapointment. And I wasn't particularly moved by Chomsky. I have never met anyone who didn't gush over lectures or readings by Seamus Heaney. But maybe there's a difference between one-offs and a semester long class - most of the celebrity's I saw were certainly good for a fascinating two hours at a minimum.
posted by fluffy1984 at 2:35 PM on July 14, 2003

I had Tobias Wolff (This Boy's Life, In Pharoah's Army, etc.) at Stanford, and he was a good teacher, but frankly, I got a lot more out the Stegner Fellows who taught us in the beginning creative writing classes. In fact, I found over and over again that TAs, Ph.D. candidates and the like, had much more to offer as teachers than did the star professors. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Off to look up "orthogonal" in the dictionary.
posted by jengod at 2:37 PM on July 14, 2003

As an addendum, here's an LA Times article on David Foster Wallace's "teaching gig" at Pomona College.

Excerpt: "In class, Wallace smiled, he joked. He took attendance. Nine of his 12 students were on hand. Two were barefoot. Wallace was wearing khaki shorts, two old shirts, black dress socks and white high-top sneakers. He was chewing gum. The faculty lounge in which Wallace conducts his class had just been host to a luncheon for graduating seniors, and Wallace encouraged his students to partake of the leftover crème brûlée, the chocolate cake, the half-drunk bottles of Chardonnay and Merlot."
posted by 111 at 2:46 PM on July 14, 2003

I think it's important to draw a distinction between those professors who are famous because they have truly achieved greatness in their fields, like many scientists mentioned here, and those who are famous for popular writings. Wallace gets a pass because his field is in fact creative writing; Ferguson doesn't. Not to mention the many politicians who settle into well-paid sinecures at journalism schools (can you tell I have a thing about J-school?)
posted by transona5 at 3:13 PM on July 14, 2003

Although I cannot name names (it wouldn't ring a bell for most people here anyway), I currently attend the philosophy classes of a man I consider a true genius in the field.

You're killing me.
posted by goethean at 3:30 PM on July 14, 2003

You're killing me.

clue: he has also worked extensively within the context of Eric Voegelin's religious/social framework, as well as 20th century political science and religious thought (Xavier Zubiri et al). He's published an introduction to Aristotle and a highly critical account of Epicurean thought and its development in protomarxist writings.
C'mon, that's easy!!! Not really. He"ll go unmentioned only because, as I said, some people wouldn't recognize him and those that would already know who he is-- there is a geographic detail that would prevent most readers from identifying the man.
posted by 111 at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2003

ROU: I don't know of a single professor at my own University whose job descriptions includes speaking with or impressing donors.

dcodea: I also went to U of I. There are many professors who has to schmooze donors as part of their jobs. Just one such example would be department heads.
posted by gyc at 3:54 PM on July 14, 2003

that is the second reference to "orthogonal directions" that i've read today. good show.

See, after spending well nigh six years now studying physics, I can not only use such phrases, they come to me naturally, and anyone who I talk to on a regular basis would instantly know exactly what I mean. Let this be a lesson to any aspiring physicists out there. It'll happen to you.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:05 PM on July 14, 2003

he has also worked extensively within the context of Eric Voegelin's religious/social framework

Oh, I see.
not my area.
posted by goethean at 7:29 PM on July 14, 2003

I knew an old gentleman who in his youth had taken a class from the one and only John Dewey. A huge draw for the school and internationally known and followed, the front three rows were reserved for disciples who dutifully inscribed every word. However, as brilliant as he was, in lecture he could bore the leaves from the trees. Astoundingly dull, monotonic, rhythmical and bland. Boring beyond any reasonable definition of the word.
The old gentleman confessed that he learned at the feet of a master--how to sleep sitting up with his eyes wide open--an extraordinary gift he retained for the rest of his life. Combined with a voluntary form of narcolepsy, Mr Dewey gave him the resolve to participate in the Rotary Club for over 40 years.
posted by kablam at 7:31 PM on July 14, 2003

last november, I gave a presentation in a class that Jacques Derrida sat in on (my presentation was on the void in Aristotle's Physics). He offered some thoughts later in the class, but I can't say he made any mind blowing observations. A couple years ago, I took a couple classes with Charles Taylor; I found them very satisfying. He was an energetic, interested lecturer, although he did try to cover just about everything that anyone ever said... but that wasn't really a down side to me.
posted by mdn at 7:35 PM on July 14, 2003

I took a class with both Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel at Boston University. Wiesel was the embodiment of all that is wise with our species. It was an honor to share the same air as that man.

Saul Bellow, on the other hand, was (and still is) a complete horse's ass. His (single) class at the University Professor's Program was more like a public relations advertising campaign for Humboldt’s Gift. The best single class I had in his course was when he had to attend a seminar and let his assistant teach us for the day.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:37 PM on July 14, 2003

But he can't be all bad - he's brought into the world nepotism apologist extraordinaire Adam Bellow.
posted by transona5 at 11:06 PM on July 14, 2003

Saul Bellow is 88 years old. Complaining that he doesn't teach a full course load is a tad petty.
posted by Daze at 12:09 AM on July 15, 2003

niall ferguson used to park his red sportscar underneath my window at college. i left a note on his windscreen to let him know that his engine noise disturbed my studies, and when he took no action, i jammed a potato up his exhaust.

i was taught quantum mechanics by celebrity athiest peter atkins. or rather, he waved his hands dismissively in my general direction on a weekly basis while i slept. he wears fancy clothes and drives a rolls royce.

my mate andy lives next door to richard dawkins.

and i once saw stephen hawking driving down the street, but he didn't teach me anything.
posted by nylon at 5:01 AM on July 15, 2003

erm, i mean atheist, not athiest.

i won't attempt to invoke heisenberg's uncertainty principle in explaining that the more you know about the current position of the i and the e the less you know about their trajectory - that is, they could be about to switch places and spell the word correctly.

actually, i think i will.
posted by nylon at 5:10 AM on July 15, 2003

orthogonal directions are the new monkeys.

well, after an abnormally civil and unusually interesting thread it was about time someone said something stupid, and the tension was killing me.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:39 AM on July 15, 2003

Saul Bellow is 88 years old. Complaining that he doesn't teach a full course load is a tad petty.

1. He wasn't 88 when he taught my class.
2. You seem to have missed the point of criticism. (Hint: it wasn't that he only taught a single class.)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:39 AM on July 15, 2003

Civil_Disobedient - did you ever encounter Lance Morrow at BU? I wouldn't say he was a bad professor - he really did care about teaching - but I had a severe (one-sided, since I never spoke up) personality conflict with him.
posted by transona5 at 11:17 AM on July 15, 2003

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